All Commentary
Thursday, December 1, 1960

The Real Conflict

Mr. Bradford is a well-known writer, speaker, and business organization consultant.


There has been much talk in re­cent years about the alleged con­flict between business and govern­ment. Actually, there is no such thing.

Businessmen, to be sure, have often criticized those in charge of government on matters of policy or administration. But so have farm­ers, laborers, and professional peo­ple. This is not “conflict.” It is simply a part of the process of rep­resentative government. There is no conflict between “business” and government, any more than there is between “agriculture” or “labor” or “medicine” or “educa­tion” and government.

But there is a conflict, very real, very serious, age-old and inevitable —namely, the conflict within each of us as to the role he expects government to play in his own life and in his relations with his fellows —whether it shall be an agency to protect him and all others in their life and liberty and pursuit of happiness, or whether through coercive force it shall direct and dominate his life and theirs.

It was a recognition of this con­flict that led the founders of our government to hedge it about with defensive checks and balances. On the one hand they wanted to guard against the overextension of gov­ernmental powers; on the other, they wanted to protect government against the excessive and ruinous demands of the people who would live under it. In other words, they wanted to protect the people from themselves; for whether they were exploited by those they had elected, or despoiled by their own cupidity, the ruin, in the end, would come home to them.

Once launched, that government had to meet the test of time and usage. As the decades multiplied, it emerged as one of the great ex­periments of humankind in self-government, and so it stands to­day.

But there comes a time in the life of every civilization when the lamp of freedom burns low. Partly, perhaps, that is because physical frontiers vanish and the pio­neering spirit fades. Partly it may be because men cease to make with their own hands the things they need, and are thus more and more remote from the realities of primary production. In part, it is no doubt due to age —not of per­sons but of civilizations; for they, too, have their time of youth and vigor, their sedate and sedentary middle period, and their shuffling senility.

Whatever the cause, somewhere along the line the word “success” becomes less alluring than the word “security” —and when that happens to large numbers through­out a civilization, then its period of greatness is waning or past, and it is headed for the boneyard of history.

Now the pendulum is on a swing toward the Mother-Father State. As always, this trend is based on the loftiest of motives. The de­clared aim is to improve the lot of the individual —a consummation devoutly desired by all men of good will. Ultimately, however, when supergovernmentalism is carried to its final stages, the aim of making life better for the in­dividual is sacrificed, and the end result is first to rob him of his substance through inflation, and finally to deprive him of his free­dom.

Who Is Responsible?

This is where the real conflict is sharply dramatized —the inner conflict of the individual with himself, whether to accept and exercise self-responsibility, or to attempt the shifting of that re­sponsibility onto society through government. Over and over, his­tory has recorded the results of that conflict, as portrayed in the rise and fall of nations. Nor is it all ancient history. We do not need to go back to Rome and its de­cline. We have seen it happen in many parts of today’s world. Be­fore the eyes of this generation, once-great nations are decaying and falling apart. The constant spread of our own government, and the sapping demands of its vor­acious tax-appetite, accompanied by a dollar shrinkage to about one-third its value in one genera­tion —this is painfully apparent to all who will see.

No matter where on the globe it may be located, the constant tendency of government is to grow; to expand its functions; to absorb the prerogatives of sub­ordinate units of government such as states, counties, and munici­palities, using up their tax sources in its ever-increasing demand for revenue; and to take away more and more of the substance of those very individuals whose lot it is supposed to be improving. And it does this, strangely enough, both at the demand and over the protest of its citizens.

The conflict is not just a case of ambitious, power-driven bu­reaucrats reaching out to gobble up lesser units of government and to control the lives of the people, though that may be part of it. Rather, it is the paradoxical phenomenon of people who resent and resist the encroachment of government into their private lives nevertheless demanding, in effect, that it do so encroach, by insisting that it “give” them more and more services, bonuses, loans, pensions, price supports, subsidies, tariffs, and other “benefits” never contemplated when the govern­ment was established.

Governments start out simply, in response to certain basic needs of men living within a common geographic area. Usually with slowness, but sometimes rapidly, they go through the steps from Jeffersonian simplicity to the apo­theosis of statism —the stages that promise utopia but lead toruin. This process is often stoutly resisted by those who want the state to remain simple for the sake of solvency and freedom. It is ad­vocated and pushed on by those who want the State to do some­thing special for them or their economic group or their area, or for the public generally. And the ultimate irony of it all is that the proponents and opponents of what we may call progress-through­bankruptcy are often the same people!

This is the real conflict —the inner battle between common sense and greed, between wisdom and folly, between the sense of get and the sense of give, between God and Mammon, that always goes on in the aspiring but weary human heart.

If we will multiply the urges and demands we have mentioned by tens of millions; if we will imagine them extending over dec­ades and generations; and fi­nally, if we will ask ourselves whether we, too, denounce use­less spending and inflation in one breath and in the next demand some governmental favor or privi­lege for ourselves, our business, or our city—if we will do this, we will perhaps reach a better under­standing of the real conflict, and of the part which we, as citizens, ought to play in it.       

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.